Out and About

Best Casual Date Spots

Posted November 19, 2012 9:00 a.m. EST
Updated December 11, 2012 5:52 p.m. EST

When I was single, I was overwhelmed by the dating scene. It required too much fussing in front of the mirror, too much squeezing into uncomfortable get-ups, too much awkward small talk and entirely too much sharing of dessert with a person I may never even choose to see again (from now on, no one touches my cake until there’s a ring on my finger!)

As I routinely darted my eyes to avoid gazing dumbly into the face of stranger while candlelight flickered softly against a white tablecloth, I really just wanted to be in a noisy bar, drinking a beer, wearing whatever jeans were topping the pile of crumpled clothes on my floor.

Now that I’m coupled, I’m a firm believer that we still need to force ourselves off the couch once in a while and hit the town. Yes, there are leftovers in the fridge. Yes, my sexy jeans are fitting a bit more snugly these days. Yes, a new Ryan Gosling flick just arrived at the Red Box.

But the Triangle is chock full of low-key spots where you can have a date without spending too much time on your hair or your outfit, where having a drink or two won’t break the bank and where conversation flows freely because the phony romantic pretense is nowhere to be found.

Here are the best spots for a casual date – whether you’re spending a rare night out with a familiar old flame or a fun, relaxed evening with someone you’re just getting to know.

If you’re heading to downtown Raleigh, hit Centro from the eccentrics behind Dos Taquitos in north Raleigh. Sip one of their many tequila cocktails to get the conversation started before things take a spicy turn over a plate of soulful Latin comfort food. For the pork lover (like all good Southerners should be), the Carnitas and Cerdo en Mole Centro are truly foods “del corazón” (from the heart). The atmosphere is warm, inviting and festive, and you’ll be surprised how the smiling skulls adorning the walls will bring out your inner romantic.

Just a short walk away from Centro, you can’t go wrong with Raleigh Times. It’s a great place to feel out the Capital City’s vibrant social scene and will signal to your date that you’re hip, but not pretentious. The space at the ever-expanding Raleigh Times is so varied, you’ve got the best of every possible date atmosphere. Sit outside and people watch on a summer evening or hole up in a dimly lit corner if things are getting cozy. If the date goes horribly south, you’ll be surrounded by friendly, fun-loving strangers who like to drink beer. Like I said, you can’t go wrong.

Before we leave Raleigh, I can’t forget The Rockford, one of the few casual, come-as-you-are spots in the trendy Glenwood South area. Enjoy a good, budget-friendly sandwich in a warm, second-floor space that’s easy but still intimate. If you sit by the window, you can watch the hustle bustle below while you leisurely sip a glass of wine and enjoy good company.

If you’re an adventurous eater who thinks the way to get to know someone better is by sharing a plate of food, head to Mateo in Durham for a delightful tapas experience. Owner Matt Kelly, of Vin Rouge fame, brings authentic, rustic Spanish fare to the Bull City with unexpected Southern surprises (the croquetas with Ashe County pimento cheese are melt-in-your-mouth delicious). The best way to enjoy Mateo is to bring your appetite, whet it with wine and order liberally.

In Chapel Hill, don’t overlook Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, which boasts a lovely little courtyard, tucked away in an alley off Franklin Street. If your date is a vegetarian, Vimala’s has both of you covered with healthy, delicious Indian food inspired by southern Indian home-cooking. Chef Vimala Rajendran is cooking her family recipes with the best of local, seasonal ingredients. Both are territories she knows well. The café is a hidden oasis where “Vimala cooks, everybody eats!”

What did we miss? What are your favorite places for a casual date?